The following is an excerpt from a two-part special feature to be published in Public Service Review: European Science and Technology...
Professor Anne Glover
In December, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso appointed the former Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, Professor Anne Glover, as the Commission’s first ever Chief Scientific Adviser, charged with the brief of providing high-level and independent scientific advice to support policy development and delivery.
There’s an obligation to ask the most imaginative researchers to identify how they will disseminate the information in their research. If we are spending a reasonable budget on them, then they have obligations too. I hope that is captured by Horizon2020.
Professor Anne Glover
In the first of a two-part special feature, Professor Glover speaks to Lauren Smith about the scope of her role in influencing policy and improving the channels of communication between scientists and policymakers.
Having been in position for a few months now, Glover is confident that she will be able to make tangible change to the way in which scientific evidence is used in the arena. Her first task has been in assessing how things stand at present and where her capabilities may make an impact.
"I need to understand how the Commission works and where the opportunities lie for who I would partner with," she explains. "The most positive thing is that, by and large, my appointment has been welcomed and one of the areas that people speak about is how we can get evidence to be more prominent in policymaking, how we can we make it easier to give the evidence a higher profile and be able to speak about the evidence in a much more comfortable way. That’s what I can deliver."
She is, however, quite clear that all policy in Europe cannot be entirely evidence-based:
"Even in an ideal world policy will not always absolutely reflect evidence. There will always be other considerations: social, ethical and economic ones. Sometimes there may even be geographical considerations. That’s the way that it should be, but I would hope that at the end of three years in my post that if evidence isn’t used, or is rejected in policymaking, then there is absolute transparency about why that is the case."
One of Glover’s primary tasks is to improve the communication channel between scientists and policymakers. "Sometimes evidence is seen as valuable and important, but policymakers are sometimes dismayed by the way that evidence is presented to them, because it’s difficult to do the interface between knowledge producers and the people who use it," she says.
"Different languages are used by both groups of people so there needs to be a common understanding. Certainly my role, and also that of others in this space, is almost to be a translator, to highlight why the evidence can provide real opportunity for imaginative policymaking. If evidence is used, then that policy is going to be robust and it also has a good chance of being long-lived, which is in everybody’s interests. This can make for an efficient and very strong process."
It is essential, she emphasises, for there to be positive communication in both directions, with policymakers being vocal about the direction they wish to go, what evidence may be needed and which areas require greater explanation.
"I’m anxious that people often criticise scientists for speaking in very technical language and not being straightforward to understand so that people reject them or don’t want to spend time listening," Glover expands. "You could level the same criticism at policymakers – they have different agendas and rather a difficult job to do as they have to interact with a whole number of people – but there’s an imperative at the end of the day that they have to deliver something that is acceptable to elected representatives of, in this case, the member states of the European Union. They have quite a challenge but they need to communicate that effectively to the people that generate the evidence so we can move into the realm of exciting, innovative understanding."
Horizon 2020 – the European Commission’s multibillion euro flagship programme for research and innovation – has the potential to alter the European research landscape in many ways and Glover is understandably keen to maximise on what it can offer for Europe to compete and contribute over the coming years.
"Both of those things will be done on the basis of excellence in science, engineering and technology," Glover suggests. "It’s what we are good at in Europe. We have to contribute to secure a healthy environment, a safe environment, an imaginative and innovative environment, and an exciting environment for the citizens of Europe that will offer opportunity for us, as well as allowing us to address the big global issues and the grand challenges."
Although Horizon 2020 was announced before Glover joined the Commission, she sees the opportunity that it could provide to fund vital projects. "Excellence needs to be the full criteria upon which we choose projects, to support excellence, that’s the first thing," she explains. "The second thing is that innovation has got prominence in Horizon 2020. It’s not because I think that all research should be applied, actually far from it. But for anyone doing the best and most excellent research there is an obligation, particularly if the funding is coming from the European Commission, to think about who else, other than fellow scientists, who you would automatically consider, would be interested in it.
"It might be a policymaker, it might be a small business environment, it may be designers: there are a whole number of people you might need to consider. There’s an obligation to ask the most imaginative researchers to identify how they will disseminate the information in their research. If we are spending a reasonable budget on them, then they have obligations too. I hope that is captured by Horizon2020.
"Horizon 2020 is not there as a top-up or a supplement to what’s already happening. It has potential for being real added value in allowing unusual ways of funding projects, to bring people together across member state boundaries and so on. If it can operate in that way, to fund things that would not otherwise go ahead, then it’s a very good thing. Those are three aspirations that I would really be happy to see being delivered."
However, there have been some suggestions in response to new policies that there is a certain level apathy or scepticism towards innovation in Europe, so does Glover believe that this is something we need to tackle? "You can clearly point to lots of exciting and innovative advances in Europe," she outlines, "but do we have all the ducks in a row to be able to deliver innovation? To start with, you need to have really exciting, world-class excellence in terms of your knowledge. We absolutely have that in Europe.
"Then, there needs to be an appetite for pushing that out and, yes, we have that. If you look over the last 10 years there has been much more excitement and engagement of scientists, engineers and technologists to push out information. I believe that European industry is missing a trick here in looking at the knowledge that’s being generated – a lot of it by public funding, whether national or European – are they taking advantage of that to sweep in and convert ideas into innovative practices, devices, treatments, technologies, all of these things?
"There is a slowness there, which may not be for want of absorbing the knowledge or being innovative. It could be because we don’t have a very good funding environment in Europe to underpin investing in new ideas, particularly as all good investment involves risk. It looks to me as if in Europe we have less appetite for risk generally."
Glover believes that the combination of the lowered risk environment, a less vigorous knowledge procurement process from companies and a less enthusiastic communication channel from our knowledge generators can depress how much innovation is being generated. She believes there is much opportunity to capitalise on what we have.
"We have plenty to be innovative about," she says, "but there may be one or two parts of the mechanism that are not well-oiled. We have to identify them, to see what the key things are and deliver on the innovation we want.
"The final thing we need in the equation is for European citizens to be demanding innovation. We want them to be in there, inventing and being part of the future. If we have a citizenship that doesn’t want to develop, it’s really tough to underpin an innovative environment. There is no question of one group saying no to innovation, just that perhaps we may have been a bit complacent about it. Now is the time to take that potential that exists and get all the other parts of the mix right."
In the second part of this interview, Professor Glover offers her thoughts on gender equality and European responsibilities towards addressing climate change for the future.
The full version of this interview will be published in two parts over issues 15 and 16 of Public Service Review: European Science and Technology.